How Presidents Win Elections

By diderot

April 13, 2019


ooking at the 2020 candidates?  Trying to figure out who to support? 

Well…have a “SEET”. 

With this clanky acronym, I’m isolating the four traits that, in my mind, make for a winning candidate—and ideally, an effective President.  Let me show you how this works, in reference to both past and current candidates.

But first, a definition of SEET: Smart, Engaging, Experienced and Tough:

  • Smart: I’ve always defined this word as the combination of three things. The first is “intelligent”.  This is a classic definition, as in IQ—a measurement of how much capacity you have to learn.  In this sense, some are born with more intelligence than others—but even a “high IQ” doesn’t mean you’ll amount to anything. 

Second is “educated”, a measure of how much schooling you’ve had, where that schooling occurred, and how much learning you retained.  Again, no guarantee of success.

The third component I call '“street smarts”. This is hardly scientific—more like, how much do you really “know”? 

To explain better, assume by your early 20’s you’ve already firmly established your IQ and finished your education.  Still, it’s all but certain that you will have more savvy at 40 than you did at 20.  Life teaches.

So, my definition here of “smart” is a combination of all three—intelligent + educated + street smarts. I put special emphasis on that last one—life lessons (and political lessons) are key to performing as a President.

  • Engaging: Every candidate has a natural constituency of support.  If not, you’d never become a candidate.  But I’m talking here about the ability to appeal beyond your loyal supporters.  

  • Experienced: This matters.  A lot. It’s beyond smarts—it’s what you’ve done in the world. In any endeavor, waiting for someone to learn on-the-job exacts a price, and maybe nowhere more tellingly than with a presidency. For example, going in, a governor inherently is better equipped than a senator because of experience running a large government bureaucracy.  Similarly, a former vice president has the distinct advantage of watching firsthand how the gears of power mesh inside a White House. 

But relevant experience can also come from different places.  Barack Obama didn’t really develop a governing philosophy until his three years as a community organizer working among poorer people. (For this priceless experience, he was paid the princely sum of $12,000 a year.) 

  • Tough: Ah—so subjective, and mercurial!  Who really is tough?  The need here is to separate the posing from actual personal character. Are you strong enough to speak your mind, and stand up to the blowback? No better failed example exists than our current President, who’s been overrun by Mexico, China, North Korea and, of course, Russia.  He is both the toughest-talking and weakest-acting candidate ever. He’s also the guy who thought John McCain wasn’t tough. 

So, that’s my yardstick for measuring a potential President: SEET. To better show you what I mean, let me first historically grade past candidates for our highest office. 

Two provisos.  First, these are my assessments of these people as candidates, not after serving in the Oval Office for any length of time.  And secondly, you’re not going to agree with a lot of my grading.  (Please feel free to voice your opinion via the “Your Turn” tab at the top of the page.  I’ll be happy to add my reasoning in response).


What seems clear (to me) is that most candidates can cite some relevant experience, and most have enough street smarts to know the game. 

But most of all, we see the overwhelming importance of “engaging”. This is the likability factor. The “good person” appeal. The one you’d “like to have a beer with”. If you have this, it can cover up a lot. Note the double X’s in this column for JFK, Reagan, Bill Clinton and Obama. On the other hand, see how a deficit in “engaging” might sink an otherwise outstanding candidate like Hillary Clinton.


ell, that’s history.  So, on to the main event. Among current announced and presumed major candidates, here are my (subjective) SEET grades:


So, is there an ultimate winner here?  First of all, remember the proven appeal of appeal—the engaging factor.  One thing we can surmise is that anyone who comes across as angry will pretty much burn his or her own bridge.  No doubt, at this time in our history there is overwhelming reason for anger. But the chosen nominee will probably be one who can deliver sharp criticism and even dollops of outrage—but with a smile…hope…and a call for unity—that’s what works.  Calm is balm.

Again (admitting my personal opinion at this point), note the the most prominent ones above who score points across the board—Biden and Harris.  Granted, these grades aren’t even close to mid-terms; there’s no way to figure out who will rise and falter under the bright lights.  And I will state that my bias is ENTIRELY toward who I think has the best chance to topple Trump. Having said that, right now I think together, Harris and Biden would make a great ticket—stipulating that it would be Harris in the top spot.  (Would Biden bother with VP again?  Doubtful.)

I reserve my right to change my mind.  And in addition, each realistic contender must prove adequate campaign funding and a competent campaign staff in addition to demonstrating the right attributes.  There’s a long way to go.

But I’m betting that voters will do what they’ve always done…and subconsciously submit all the candidates to a “SEET” test.    

And after they do, let us hope that in November 2020 we’ll be cheering a new President of the United States.

Have a comment or thought on this? Just hit the Your Turn tab here or email us at to have your say.